Archaeologists Discover 'Church of the Ark' in West Bank

Emerging from the soil over a few acres in the hills of the Israeli occupied West Bank is believed to be one of the world’s first churches, which was uncovered and claimed by archaeologists on Sunday.

Built on a site believed to have once housed the Ark of the Covenant, the church is richly decorated with brightly colored mosaics and inscriptions referring to Jesus Christ.

According to the team led by Yitzhak Magen and Yevgeny Aharonovitch, the church dates to the late 4th century, making it one of Christianity's first formal places of worship.

"I can't say for sure at the moment that it's the very first church," said Mr Aharonovitch, 38, as he oversaw a team carrying out the final excavations before winter. "But it's certainly one of the first."

Aharonovitch said the site contained an extremely unusual inscription which referred to itself, Shiloh, by name.

"That is very rare and shows early Christians treated this as an ancient, holy place," he said, as reported by the U.K.-based Telegraph. According to the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, was kept by the Israelites at Shiloh for several hundred years.

It was eventually moved to the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple that the Bible says was built by King Solomon around 1,000 BC. When the temple was sacked by the Babylonians 400 years later, the Ark was lost, sparking theories about whether it had been hidden or destroyed.

The team at Shiloh is considering whether to dig under the mosaics that they have uncovered, in order to find traces of the Ark. "We have to decide whether to fix the mosaics here or take them to a museum," said Aharonovitch.

Jewish residents in the modern settlement of Shiloh, which sits on a hill among Palestinian villages, want the team to keep digging.

David Rubin, a former mayor of Shiloh, said: "We believe that if they continue to dig they'll reach back to the time of the Tabernacle," referring to the portable place of worship where the Israelites housed the Ark.